The air up there

Untitled-Jamal-Story-0278Out choreographer Jamal Story takes to the heavens for Black History Month with aerial ballet for Dallas Black Dance Theatre

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES
Executive Editor
jones@dallasvoice.com

Jamal Story is the first to admit that, as a gay man in the dance world, he’s lucked out professionally. In addition to touring with Madonna as one of her dancers, he also serves as dance captain for Cher.

“Friends of mine say, ‘If you’d only worked for Janet [Jackson], you’d have the ultimate gay triumvirate. But Janet only hires female dancers,” Story laughs.

Getting to hang with two women who really helped define what Story calls “commercial dance” has been an honor and a revelation.

“Cher is exactly who you think she’ll be: Equal parts girly-girly and tough broad,” he says. “But she and Madonna couldn’t be more different, though both are extraordinarily hardworking individuals and have a high sense of attention to detail. They are clear to the inch what their representations need to be. That was wonderful for me [to learn from them].”

But as wonderful as that kind of success has been, where Story really feels at home isn’t on a huge stage, twerking and writhing for throngs of rabid fans (even though, he admits, “that energy is astounding”). As an artist, though, “commercial dance is totally different from what I do.”

Story’s passion has always been honoring the long tradition of dance pioneered by African-American artists from Alvin Ailey to Joan Myers Brown. And he wants to share that passion with the widest audience possible.

“There are five black dance companies in America that are over the age of 30 — all founded by black women artistic directors,” Story says. That elite club includes Dallas Black Dance Theatre, founded in 1976 by Ann Williams (she retired in 2014). “They are the ones with a specific black repertoire aimed at maintaining the works of black choreographers and black themes.”

This weekend, Story joins that repertoire. He’s one of the featured artists creating an original work for DBDT’s program called Cultural Awareness, a mini-festival mounted specifically for Black History Month.
Screen shot 2016-02-18 at 10.30.33 AM“The cornerstone of the dance landscape [among these companies] is the tradition of preserving black dance in America,” Story says. “That includes a lot of the legendary ballets of Alvin Ailey, but in addition there is a large group of choreographers over the decades who have explored [that tradition]. I was trained under the aegis of that repertoire, and want to give audiences a window into that repertoire. I wanted to stay connected to that.”

Story’s affiliation with DBDT “has been a minute,” he jokes. He was an apprentice and guest artist while attending Southern Methodist University, then moved to Los Angeles where he continued to study black dance. So this program is something of a homecoming for Story, though he is excited to push some boundaries with his new piece, The Parts They Left Out, while still honoring the tradition of black dance.

“I don’t find it’s necessary to reach too far or hard to get to the energy of that black dance legacy — enough of it has been with me in my dancing for so long it’s there … it’s not something I consciously think of,” he says. But he’s elevating the level of work at DBDT… literally. His piece is almost entirely an aerial ballet. (He thinks it’s a first for the company.)

Training his dancers to move from terrestrial to ethereal dance presented a host of challenges.

Jamal-Story-Headshot-1

FROM  CHER TO ALVIN | Jamal Story choreographed an aerial ballet for DBDT’s Cultural Awareness program for Black History Month. (Photos courtesy Brian Gulliaux and Jamal Story)

“The first thing is getting over a sense of the height,” he explains. “I don’t have the dancers too high in the air — every apparatus is accessible from the ground. But there is the idea that you are not connected to terra firma. What that means on a technical level is, the skills you have with your

work on the floor is all compromised — you have a different sense of your body in space.” For example, on the ground an arabesque requires standing on one leg while the

second creates a perpendicular line. Since there’s no ground to push off of in the air, you have to rediscover that line. And you have to rely heavily on your upper body. “On the floor, it’s a lot about your legs, a connective sense of the instrument moving in space; dancing in the air requires extraordinary upper body strength,” he says. “Add to that aerial partnering, and you’re having to manage another body in the air.”

As technical as the work is, though, to Story it’s still secondary to the meaning. The Parts They Left Out it explores specific figures in

Greek mythology “with a little more fleshing-out of the stuff that gets left out in the oral tradition of [ancient history],” he says. “In most cultures, the oral testimony is very important at first, and then it’s written down. But it leaves lots of room for questions. My preoccupation was in the implication of Greek history and how it was comprised of brown people.” Looking into different theories on the origins of man and studies of mitochondrial DNA, Story says “it becomes clearer and clearer that the ancient Greeks were probably people of color and their myths would be part of our canon as well.”

And that, Story insists, is something everyone can be proud of.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition February 19, 2016.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

Dallas Black Dance Theatre appoints new director

april-berry

DBDT appointed April Berry as its new artistic director.

Dallas Black Dance Theater announced the appointment of April Berry, a former principal dancer, as its new artistic director. Berry will be only DBDT’s second leader. Founding director Ann Williams retired in May after 37 years of leading the company.

Berry’s a well-known figure in the dance world, having studied under “the matriarch of black dance” Katherine Dunham, according to art & seek. “Berry is one of only a handful of Dunham ‘masters,’ certified to teach the ‘Dunham technique.”

She ran her mentor’s namesake company, has toured around the world with Ailey and taught at multiple universities. She also contributed choreography to Debbie Allen’s The Chocolate Nutcracker. Allen, in collaboration with Imagination Celebration Fort Worth, hosts an annual summer dance institute in Fort Worth.

Berry will begin Sept. 4. Williams plans to help Berry in the company’s transition.

—  James Russell

DBDT founder Ann Williams to retire

AnnWilliams_2008

Ann Williams

Ann Williams, the founder and creative director of the Dallas Black Dance Theatre — one of the resident companies that moved into the Wyly Theatre when the Arts District was relaunched four years ago — is stepping down at the end of this upcoming season, her 37th with the troupe.

Williams began her vision 40 years ago when she founded the Dallas Black Dance Academy as a training ground for young African-American dancers. The company followed several years later.

DBDT — one of whose members recently performed with Bruce Wood Dance Project — is in the middle of its summer intensive session. It’s 2013-14 season starts in October and runs through next May.

A national search committee is being organized to find a replacement for Williams.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

Serrecchia receives award for dance excellence

Michael Serrecchia, center, with Gary Floyd and Patty Breckenridge.

Every year, the Dance Council of North Texas presents awards to local luminaries in dance, education and choreography, and this year’s recipient of the Natalie Skelton Award for Artistic Excellence goes to Michael Serrecchia.

Serrecchia,whose career on Broadway included being a member of the original cast of A Chorus Line and a national tour with Chita Rivera, has made Dallas his home for several decades, during which he has remained a sought-after choreographer and performer in shows like Urinetown and A Class Act. But he has also made quite a name as a stage director, recently helming memorable productions like Uptown Players’ Next to Normal (pictured center with stars Gary Floyd and Patty Breckenridge) and ICT’s How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying — doing the choreography for both as well. His most recent show is Cheaters at Contemporary Theatre of Dallas.

“Several of Michael’s productions were prestigious regional premieres,” the Council noted in its citation. “Michael incorporates a strong point of view and style … How fortunate for North Texas that Michael settled here.”

Serrecchia’s longtime partner is costume designer Michael Robinson.

The ceremony honoring Serrecchia and others takes place Oct. 2 at the Dallas Black Dance Theatre. Tickets can be purchased at TheDanceCouncil.org.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

Try the Dallas Black Dance Theatre for lunch this week

How about a pirouette for lunch

The Dallas Black Dance Theatre is going to make your lunch plans a whole lot more interesting this week. Now an annual event, the mini-series called Behind the Scenes offers noontime performances. That is something totally to be thankful for. The first two shows will offer a sneak peek at their December Winter Series. The troupe performs A Rag, A Bone and a Hank of Hair to the music of Earth Wind and Fire on Wednesday.

DEETS: Dallas Black Dance Theatre, 2700 Flora St. Noon. Free. For reservations call 214-871-2390. DBDT.com

—  Rich Lopez

Best bets • 11.19.10

Friday 11.19

Girls, comas and dolls — oh my

The Dresden Dolls and Girl in a Coma are perhaps one of the better musical pairings this year. At least for the gay contingent. GIAC rocks out the lesbian in all of us and The Dresden Dolls’ dark cabaret act has been resurrected by Amanda Palmer and Brian Viglione, much to the delight of  the fans who thought their self-imposed hiatus would never end.

DEETS: Granada Theater, 3524 Greenville Ave. 9 p.m. $29. GranadaTheater.com.

………………………………………

Saturday 11.20

So they think they got talent

The Texas Gay Rodeo Association hosts Thanks for the Giving which shakes up your usual talent show. TGRA puts nonprofits to the test who have to put their best entertainer up to lip-sync, dance, drag or whatever for their life. Or at least for some fat cash. The winner of the contest takes it all for their agency.

DEETS: Dallas Eagle, 5740 Maple Ave. 6 p.m.
DallasTGRA.org.

………………………………………

Monday 11.22

How about a pirouette for lunch

The Dallas Black Dance Theatre is going to make your lunch plans a whole lot more interesting this week. Now an annual event, the mini-series called Behind the Scenes offers noontime performances. That is something totally to be thankful for. The first two shows will offer a sneak peek at their December Winter Series. The troupe performs A Rag, A Bone and a Hank of Hair to the music of Earth Wind and Fire on Wednesday.

DEETS: Dallas Black Dance Theatre, 2700 Flora St. Noon. Free. For reservations call 214-871-2390. DBDT.com

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition November 19, 2010.

—  Michael Stephens

Applause • Black. Power. Movement.

Dallas Black Dance Theatre ramps its 2010-11 season way up before celebrating 35 years

RICH LOPEZ  | Staff Writer

Dancers Chris and Bravita
Dancers Chris and Bravita bring a fine line to the new season of the Dallas Black Dance Theatre. Photography by Richard W. Rodriguez

As far as birthdays or anniversaries go, 34 isn’t usually considered a standout milestone. But for Ann Williams, it means a lot.

As the founding artistic director of the Dallas Black Dance Theatre, Williams sees the company’s upcoming 34th season as one of renewal and renovation — and one about preparing Dallas for its inevitable 35th year in the city.

“I did not think 35 years ago that it would ever be like this,” says Williams. “Back then, I just wanted a place to educate little girls; I just had my academy. Now, we get to service the city with professional dance theater.”

The DBDT calls its 2010–11 lineup A Season of Strength, Intensity and Seduction — virtues that have kept the theater going seemingly nonstop. Without missing a season since its beginning, DBDT renews itself by bringing in four new dancers to the troupe — not to mention last year’s move from the Majestic Theater into the Wyly Theatre, and its new home at the old Moreland YMCA in the Arts District.

Williams, with executive director Zenetta S. Drew, has steered the organization into its rightful place among Dallas arts.

“There’s been such a boon of the arts in Dallas,” Williams says. “I hope it continues with the economic times, but we’ve also been privileged to have these arts in this town. Plus, it’s exciting that we have the theater. We can actually plan a series.”

On both sides of the stage, the theater has had its own connection with the LGBT community. In past seasons, and even in the upcoming one, the theater has performed works by noted gay choreographers.  In February, the theater performs its Cultural Awareness Series including Smoke by Fort Worth’s Bruce Wood.

“For our dancers, the stigma of being gay has not hindered them or anyone not one bit,” Williams says of the welcoming approach the DBDT has taken toward the gay community— whether in the seats or onstage. “When I audition a dancer or talk to a potential employee, dance must be their passion. But I want everyone to remain individuals. I don’t want to see anyone hold something in. The only time I want to see people fitting in is during rehearsals. That’s the only time I have for cohesiveness.”

This season starts with the fifth annual DanceAfrica Festival at the Majestic. Despite its new home, DBDT keeps some ties to its former stage. The October event features dance, music art and cuisine of Africa.

This also marks a season of collaborations. DBDT teams up with the Dallas Museum of Art for African Masks: The Art of Disguise in October, the Irving Symphony for Hope Boykin’s in-ter-pret and perhaps the most anticipated, the Dallas Theater Center’s July production of The Wiz. All of this has Williams pretty excited.

“This is going to be so cool! There will be over 55 performers in this show,” she says.

The collaboration combines the Wyly’s two resident companies, and should also introduce Dallas Black Dance Theatre to new audiences it might not have gotten on its own. Williams finds that even today, the theater can break barriers.

“We have had very supportive audiences,” she says, “but we always want to reach out to others and embrace new fans.”

Growing from a basement space academy over three decades ago, Williams is aware that she has created an arts legacy for this city — even if she can’t believe it.

“I’m very humbled by who we are. It is still surprising,” she says. “When I see those beautiful dancers onstage working together, it brings tears of joy.  It really does.

And she wants to remind the audiences that they can expect a great season, but be prepared for the next.
“Thirty-five is right around the corner,” she says with a smirk. “That is the year we will really show out.”

Dallas Black Dance Theatre
2700 Flora St. The 2010-11 season begins with the
5th Annual DanceAfrica Festival
The Majestic Theater, 1925 Elm St.
Oct. 8–9. $10. Season tickets $96–$208. 214-871-2376.
DBDT.org.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition August 27, 2010.

—  Kevin Thomas